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Software incompatibilities. Sluggish operation. That darn User Account Control screen. Is it any wonder Windows Vista has being greeted in some quarters with a lack of enthusiasm? But your PC came with Vista, and that means you’re stuck with it, right?
Wrong. You can replace stiff, awkward Vista with the comfy, compatible old slipper that is Windows XP. It takes a couple of hours, but it won’t cost you any money that you haven’t already spent. Here’s how.
Start by backing up your system. At the very least, offload the data to CDs or, better yet, a USB flash drive or external hard drive. Even better: Take an image of the entire hard drive using a utility like Acronis TrueImage or Norton Ghost, for a complete system restoration. If the XP installation goes badly, having a backup or disk image allows you to restore your system to its previous state. You’ll still be running Vista, but at least you’ll still be running.
When you boot your XP CD, this is the first screen you'll encounter. Hit Enter to proceed.
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Next, gather up all the drivers you’ll need. Remember that your PC was built to Vista specifications and equipped with Vista-compatible software and drivers. Your PC doesn’t have XP drivers, and Windows XP might not have all the drivers built into it that your PC needs. Unless you collect all the right drivers before you do your upgrade, you run the risk of ending up with a crippled PC.
To avoid this dilemma, poke around Windows Device Manager to see exactly what components are installed, then head to your PC maker’s Web site and download the appropriate drivers. Essentials include video, audio, Ethernet, and wireless networking (Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi). Save everything to the USB drive so the drivers and other software and information are easily accessible when you need them.
Round up the software CDs for connected peripherals like printers, PDAs, and iPods.
Make sure you have a Windows XP Pro CD and a valid activation key. If you don’t have a CD available, you can beg or borrow one from a friend or co-worker.
You can get the activation key from Microsoft. All volume-licensed versions of Vista, along with retail and OEM versions of Vista Business and Vista Ultimate, come with downgrade rights. That means you’re entitled to an XP activation key from Microsoft or your PC maker. (Interestingly, you can downgrade even further if you wish: The license also entitles you to Windows 2000 Professional, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 98, or even Windows 95.)
Finally, make a list of applications and utilities you’ll want to install (or reinstall) after you’ve downgraded.
Downgrade Or Sidegrade?
Now you have to decide if you want to downgrade or “sidegrade.” “”Downgrading” is what Microsoft calls it when you revert from a newer OS to an older one.
“Sidegrading” is a less radical option. Instead of ditching Vista altogether, you can install XP alongside it, booting to either operating system as the need arises. That way, you get to run XP for everyday operations, while still poking around in Vista and getting acquainted with it more gradually.
So, let’s dive into actually doing a downgrade. (If you want to sidegrade, see the sidebar on the third page of this article). As I mentioned earlier, you should have a good backup in place along with all the necessary drivers and software for your system.
Boot your Windows XP Pro CD. Most new PCs are set up to let you boot from CD by default, but if yours isn’t one of those, you’ll have to venture into your manufacturer’s documentation or search Google to find out how to tweak the BIOS settings to allow you to boot from CD.
When the first XP Setup menu appears, press Enter. Press F8 to accept the license agreement, then select your C: drive as the desired partition and hit Enter.
Note that if you get an error message indicating Windows was unable to detect any hard drives on your system, it’s because XP lacks the necessary drivers for newer SATA hardware. Unfortunately, there’s no easy workaround. Although your PC vendor should have the drivers you need, you may have to attach a floppy drive to load them during XP installation. You boot from the XP CD, hit F6 when prompted, and hope the system is able to pull the drivers off the attached floppy drive. This can be a hit-or-miss affair. If you run into trouble, hit Google — or sweet-talk your local PC guru —for additional help.
When the time comes to activate XP, choose the telephone option. You'll need to call Microsoft to get your downgrade activation key.
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Now choose the option labeled “Format the partition using the NTFS file system (Quick).” On the final screen, press F to format the drive. This is the do-or-die moment; you’re completely erasing your PC’s hard disk. No turning back!
From this point you can follow the remaining prompts to install XP in regular fashion. The entire process will take around an hour to complete.
When the OS installation completes, install whatever drivers are needed so you can get on your local network and the Internet (those are the drivers you saved to your USB drive before the upgrade), adjust the video settings, install your favorite applications, restore your data from the USB drive, and otherwise customize Windows to your liking.
There’s no sense activating Windows until you know for sure that everything works like it should. Activation would just be a waste of time if you end up having to roll back to Vista or re-install XP again. XP gives you 30 days to use Windows and tinker before activation is actually required (though it’ll nag you on a regular basis until you comply).
Once you’re satisfied that XP is in the groove, you’re free and clear to activate. Make sure to select the “activate by phone” option; this isn’t something you can do online. Dial the number provided, wade through the prompts until you reach a live rep, then explain that you’re downgrading. Provide your Vista product key; the rep should walk you through the remaining steps. Note that you may be redirected to your PC vendor, depending on your Vista version and license.
That’s it! Now you can install your software, restore your data, and do whatever else it takes to make the system your own. Welcome back, XP — you were missed.
Installing XP On The Side
For the best of both OS worlds, consider setting up a dual-boot configuration: Vista stays put, XP and joins it on a newly created drive partition. Each time you boot your PC, you’ll choose the OS you want from an options menu. It’s easy to set up, and it requires only a few extra minutes on top of the standard XP-install process. Here’s how:
When you’re all done, you’ll still need to activate XP using the information provided in the main section.